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Home > The ABC of air > Regulations


Standards regarding protection of the atmosphere can seem complex because they are numerous.

They apply to a range of areas:

  • the air in the workplace,
  • exterior ambient air (the term “immission” is used)
  • air emitted by certain installations (industries, automobiles, etc.; in this case we refer to “emission”)
  • and an area still not extensively covered, interior air (public or private).

Different scales are also necessary for these regulations reflecting the nature of the pollution, itself dispersed over a geographical scale of greater or lesser size.




The chapters below will deal with exterior ambient air.

Thresholds for the short term: act quickly in case of acute pollution
  • Threshold of recommendation and information : corresponds to the levels starting at which the Public Authorities inform citizens of the situation. They caution sensitive individuals and recommend measures intended to limit emissions.
  • Alert threshold : a level of concentration of polluting substances in the atmosphere beyond which exposure of brief duration represents a risk for human health and/or the environment. It results in emergency measures being taken by the Prefect.
Thresholds for the long term : ensure good air quality through the year
  • Quality objective : a level of concentration of polluting substances in the atmosphere, determined based on scientific knowledge, intended to avoid, prevent or reduce the harmful effects of these substances on human health or on the environment, to be attained within a given period.
  • Maximum limit: a maximum level of concentration of polluting substances in the atmosphere, determined based on scientific knowledge, intended to avoid, prevent or reduce the harmful effects of these substances on human health or on the environment.


Several international agreements have been entered into

We may cite:

  • the Geneva convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979)
  • the Montreal protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987)
  • the Oslo protocol relating to Further Reduction of Sulphur Emissions (1994)
  • the protocols relative to, firstly, heavy metals, and secondly to Persistent Organic Pollutants, adopted at Aarhus (Denmark), on 24 June, 1998
  • the Rio convention on climate change (1992) followed by protocole de Kyoto (1997) which entered into force on 16 February, 2005, was been ratified by 141 countries in 2010.

The Copenhagen Conference (December, 2009) was to have been the occasion to renegotiate an international agreement on the climate to follow the Kyoto protocol, whose commitments ended in 2012. No strong consensus on the post-2012 climate regime was able to be arrived at. Negotiations continue.

In Europe

The first EC Directives date from the early 1980s (Directive 80/779/EC, know as the “SO2/Dust” Directive; 82/884/EC setting a maximum value for lead; and 92/72/EC on ozone).

In 1996, the framework for evaluating and managing the quality of ambient air within the space of the European Community, aimed at building a common strategy, was defined.

The goals of the Community strategy are the following:

  • define and set goals for the quality of ambient air in the Community
  • have information available on air quality
  • maintain the quality of the air when it is good and improve it in other cases

A European Directive must be transcribed into the laws of the country in order to be applied.

The Directives include the following:

  • 2004/107/EC (15 December, 2004), relating to arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air
  • 2008/50/EC (21 May, 2008), relating to the quality of ambient air and cleaner air for Europe. It sets requirements for surveillance of the different pollutants: SO2, NO2, PM10 and PM2.5, O3, Pb, benzene.

Each Member State is requested to divide its territory into homogeneous zones, similarly to what is done for catchment areas for water, and for which the quality of the air is evaluated as a function of population and pollution characteristics.


In France

Codified in Articles L220-1 and following of the French Environmental Code, the Law on Air and the Rational Use of Energy (LAURE), promulgated on 30 December, 1996, recognises each individual’s right to breathe air that is not dangerous to his or her health.

THE LAW ON AIR (Article L220-1)

The State and its public institutions, local authorities and their public institutions as well as private individuals, all contribute, each within its field of competence and within the limits of its responsibility, to a policy whose objective is the implementation of the recognised right of all to breathe air which is not harmful to one’s health. This action of general public interest consists in:

  • preventing, monitoring, reducing or removing atmospheric pollution
  • preserving air quality
  • saving and using energy in a rational manner

Protection of the atmosphere includes prevention of air pollution and the struggle against emissions of greenhouse-effect gases.

Surveillance of the quality of the air over the entire territory is therefore requested. 

THE LAW ON AIR (Article L221-2, paragraph 1)

A system for monitoring air quality and its effects on health and the environment covers the entire national territory.

The terms and conditions of monitoring are adapted to the needs of each zone concerned, in particular for conurbations of more than 100,000 inhabitants.

To that end, within the Ministry for the Environment, a bureau of air quality entrusts its implementation:

  • to authorised entities,
    the Associations Agréées de Surveillance de la Qualité de l’Air (AASQA – Approved Air Quality Monitoring Associations) in each region, united within the Atmo-France federation
  • to the Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie
    (Ademe – French Environment and Energy Management Agency)
  • to the Laboratoire Central de Surveillance de la Qualité de l’Air 
    (LCSQA – Central Air Quality Monitoring Laboratory) made  up of the INÉRIS, the LNE, and the École des Mines de Douai

The LAURE is applied via decrees, ministerial orders and ministerial notifications.


In the Regions

The Law on the air establishes an information and alert procedure at two levels, managed by the Prefect. He or she must inform the public and take emergency measures in case of predicted or observed exceeding of regulatory thresholds. These measures are set down in ministerial orders.

The thresholds are determined at the European level and correspond to levels of concentration of polluting substances in the atmosphere beyond which exposure of brief duration represents a risk for human health or of deterioration of the environment.

There are two thresholds:

  • the threshold of information and recommendations for sensitive persons
    (children, the elderly, asthmatics, persons who suffer from respiratory insufficiency, persons with cardiac problems)
  • the Alert threshold, which applies to the entire population and, beyond the actions provided for as regards information, imposes measures to restrict or suspend activities that contribute to the pollution peaks in question.

The law also mandates the implementation of various plans (PRQA, PDU, PPA, PRSE…) (see the following menu) whose goal is to integrate the consideration of air quality into the framework of urban planning policy and territorial development, for example.